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Aladdin and the 40 Issues of Casting




A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece in response to the ridiculousness surrounding the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine for Disney’s live action adaptation. I thought after that article I had nothing more to say. Then Disney announced the full cast… And I realized I want a trailer. So here’s a roundup and thoughts on the finalized lead cast. (The extras better be diverse too!)

As stated in my last article, Aladdin was always going to be a problem. Disney’s amalgam of India and the Middle East, racist depictions of the men, and the sexism around Jasmine made for a crappy source text.

Then Disney announced Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) as the director for the script written by John August (Charlie’s Angels). Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) is now editing it. Not a single SA/ME person on the production team. That and the statement that they couldn’t find the right person for either role had me rolling my eyes.

When Egyptian Mena Massoud and British-Gujarati Naomi Scott were finally cast, I like many others was excited. Except, South Asians and Arabs started shouting at each other over stolen roles. As if the movie had been a bastion of positive representation in the first place? My reaction to that is in my prior piece. The takeaway is that the original source text for this remake was never going to lead to positive representation. The entire premise is a racist and sexist hodge-podge of South Asian and Arab influences! Adding a diverse cast representative of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African backgrounds is only the first step.

That diverse cast includes Tunisian-Dutch Marwan Kenzari as Jafar. Iranian Navid Negahban stars as the Sultan and Iranian Nasim Pedrad is Dalia. She portrays Princess Jasmine’s hand maiden and confidante, newly created for the film. Turkish Numan Acar is Hakim, Jafar’s right-hand man and head of the palace guards. America’s own Will Smith portrays the Genie.

A new character, Prince Anders, (Lithuanian Billy Magnussen) is a suitor from Skanland (a city in Norway). I bet that he replaces Prince Achmed who tried to marry Jasmine in the original. Unlike everyone else who is angry about his addition, if he stays a potential suitor and actual romantic rival for Aladdin, I think having a token white dude is great!

I’m also excited that Jasmine gets to talk to someone outside of a tiger who might not even be in the film. None of the animal characters have been mentioned in casting yet.

At the end of the day, with a talented cast from all over the world and a production team behind various past hits, the movie should be okay. Add in good music (Alan Menken), hopefully, respectful costuming and links to various source cultures, Aladdin should be an enjoyable film for all audiences.

Now we just need a trailer to really start analyzing.

Images courtesy of Will Smith, Walt Disney, NBC

Shahar is a Sufi Muslim Bangladeshi-Texan feminist Master of Public Health. She has opinions about pretty much everything, watches ridiculous amounts of TV, and talks about media issues and representation.

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Lara Croft Returns in this First Trailer for Tomb Raider





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As one of the biggest and most recognizable video games of all time, with two movies starring Angelina Jolie already in the bank, it should come as no surprise we’re getting a Tomb Raider reboot already. The first trailer dropped today, and it hopes to reboot the franchise’s movie chops much the same way the game inspiring it did the video game series.

Tomb Raider looks to reboot the story as well, taking us back to the origin of Lara Croft and her tomb raiding adventures. After finding a hidden message from her missing father about an apocalyptic threat, Lara travels to stop the threat and solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance. This leads to her ship wrecking at a mysterious island and battling a group already there.

So basically, Tomb Raider 2013. Watch the trailer, and you’ll see that’s hopefully a very good thing.

Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft looks good, the action looks sharp, and I absolutely love how much influence the movie takes from the best of the Tomb Raider games. Walton Goggins is amazing and should make for a quality villain. All the pieces are in place to finally give us a good movie based on a video game. Tomb Raider being the franchise to break the crap streak would certainly be fitting.

After so many promising failures, however, it’s hard to get my hopes up. After all, this movie apparently adapts Tomb Raider 2013, but I see no Sam Nishimura anywhere. Big mistake, movie. You don’t make something inspired by Tomb Raider 2013 without including the mountains of subtext between Lara and Sam. Hopefully they just kept it out of the trailer.

Here’s hoping for the best. There’s a decent amount to inspire optimism here, even without a Sam around for Lara to gal pal around with.

tomb raider lara sam

Just gals being pals.

Tomb Raider is scheduled for release on March 16, 2018. Along with Vikander and Goggins, the film stars Daniel Wu, Dominic West, Hannah John-Kamen, Antonio Aakeel, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Nick Frost.

Video and Images Courtesy of MGM and Square Enix

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Jumanji’s Second Trailer Spoils Everything





It’s a common thing for trailers to show too much these days, especially with action movies like Jumanji. I come to expect it at this point. Still, I’m disappointed to walk away from this trailer feeling like I saw the best parts of the movie condensed to two minutes.

The sequel to the Robin Williams starring meme classic, Jumanji 2: Welcome to the Jungle trades in the board game for a video game. Four high school students warp inside and become the characters they chose to play as. Predictably, the geek becomes Dwayne Johnson, the popular girl becomes Jack Black, the athlete becomes Kevin Hart, and the nerdy girl becomes Karen Gillan in skimpy clothes.

Because of course. It’s a tale as old as time. Pretty sure one of the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution covers this.

It all looks fun enough. The action looks cool, the jokes mostly work for me, and the cast is one I’ll find entertaining, at least. You know where the movie will go from a mile away. Sometimes that’s okay. Just throw a fun cast and some decent action in a movie, and I’ll have a good time.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle releases on December 20 and is directed by Jake Kasdan, whose previous work includes the fantastic Walk Hard.

Video and Images Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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American Assassin Is Bad But Not Bad Enough to Be Good




There’s a fine line between good bad or fun bad and just plain bad. A bad that’s plodding and self-serious, although a movie’s lack of self-awareness can sometimes boost it into good bad. American Assassin is just plain bad.

Among the litany of problems with the movie is the main character Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien). Rapp is among the few survivors of a terrorist attack at the beach resort. He is vacationing with his girlfriend/soon to be fiance Katrina (Charlotte Vega). After proposing to Katrina, the terrorists appear with automatic weapons. What follows is a disturbing mass shooting that wants to be both effective and cool but fails at both.

It fails because the publicity department of American Assassin has shown this scene countless times in trailers and television ads. Once we see the beach, we know what scene is coming. The other reason it fails is that we live in a culture in which mass shootings and terrorist attacks are not as rare as they should be. So when the movie tries to be hip about it, we bristle at its own shallow callousness.

Rapp survives and proceeds to devote his life to hunting down terrorists. He grows out his beard, works out, studies the Koran, and even gets a flexible keyboard, just so we know how serious he is. He’s so good he’s infiltrated a terrorist cell online and is close to being recruited. How Rapp can do all this without a job, or family, both his parents are dead, American Assassin never tells us.

He’s a blank slate but unfortunately so is O’Brien. O’Brien is much too young for a role of this caliber or at least he looks too young. I was never able to take him seriously as he’s surrounded by actual grown-ups. His disdain for the establishment or for authority, in general, came off as pouty and whiny more than any kind of rebelliousness. It’s in a movie like American Assassin where we begin to mourn the loss of the ‘Hollywood action star.’

Allen Darrah, an old friend,  once said, “There has never been anything before or since, quite like Arnold Schwarzenegger.” That quote played in my mind while watching O’Brien stomp across the screen like a petulant middle schooler. This is a movie that would have benefited from the likes of Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis. Movie stars have to be larger than life. When the assistant director of the C.I.A. Irene (Sanaa Lathan) tells Agent Hurley (Michael Keaton) that “He tests off the charts. I’ve never seen anything like it.” We groan at the laziness of the script.

We groan because we’re expected to just accept this as fact. But O’Brien doesn’t have the charisma or the ability to make us believe it for a single second. Movie stars make us believe them by virtue of lines like “He’s tested off the charts!” With actors like O’Brien you demand they re-test him.

Eventually, the potentially super rogue agent is sent off to super rogue agent school where he meets Stanley Hurley played by the wonderful Michael Keaton who deserves a better movie. Then again so do we.  Keaton has a wonderful physicality to his performances. Notice how he comes down the stairs to greet Rapp; the odd little bit of half a dance he does. Keaton is ever present no matter the performance, and he can lift up any material given to him.

Later on, when Hurley has been captured and he’s being tortured by the bad guy “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), there is a beautiful Keaton moment. If you do happen to see this movie keep an eye out for this scene. Keaton’s famed wild eyes and manic grin come out in full force as he withstands a bizarre interrogation scene. It’s one of the few times where the director Michael Cuesta finds the perfect balance between showing enough but not too much for maximum effect. It’s the script that almost kills the scene.

The script by committee has saddled him with nothing to lift. These are stock characters in a stock plot. Had there been something on the page maybe O’Brien wouldn’t have come across as such a wet blanket. The script wants to be about Rapp’s journey, but he never goes anywhere. No one does. Things happen, and people die, but it’s never clear why any of it should matter.  Although credit, where credit is due, the scene where Hurley tells Rapp to throw the nuclear device into the ocean was a pretty well-done scene. The explosion causes a tsunami-like something out of Cameron’s Abyss.  

Cuesta isn’t an incompetent director. He hasn’t yet figured out what works for television and what works for the movies. There’s a scene early on where Rapp and Hurley are speaking. Cuesta shoots the scene in a series of what’s called ‘over shoulder’ shots. It’s a type of framing you often see on television. The camera is placed behind one character’s  shoulder. This is so one character has his back to you while the other character is facing us. At some point, it became almost dizzying as the movie kept cutting between the different over the shoulder shots. It distracted from Keaton and O’Brien’s performance. 

I know everybody hates lens flares, American Assassin has those as well, but the movie goes one step further. During the shootouts, if a character was shot and they were near the camera, blood would splatter on the lens. It’s an aim at realism in a movie that hasn’t tried to be realistic from the first frame. This is the type of movie where our hero drives a car into a tunnel filled mystery pipes. He mows down a hand full of bad guys and then climbs out just before the car explodes into a fireball killing all those in a nearby radius. How did he know Hurley wasn’t nearby? Or his Iranian counterpart Annika (Shiva Negar)?

There are a few things work, but overall American Assassin can’t escape from under the groaning weight of its inchoate script. Characters spend almost the entire run time complaining to other characters about Rapp.  He’s a ‘loose cannon, ’ or he’s ‘brilliant but he doesn’t follow orders.’ The rest of the time they are furious that he’s a ‘loose cannon’ and that ‘he’s brilliant but doesn’t follow orders.’  American Assassin isn’t so bad as to be entertaining but it’s also not good enough to be enjoyable. It’s just bad, bad, bad, bad.

Image courtesy of Lionsgate Films 

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